Machuca -- A Movie Review and Summary: Kids' Lives in Chile Under Pinochet

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Chile, 1973: Salvadore Allende is President, class division is extremely pronounced, and the country is plagued by food shortages. The people are just about at a breaking point, but for Gonzalo Infante (Matias Quer) it’s just another year at the Saint Patrick English School. That is, it’s just another year until Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran) decides to try to integrate the classroom which was previously exclusively middle and upper class students. He brings in several lower class children who have been living in a shanty town on the edges of Santiago, hoping to provide them with an education that will allow them to live a better life than their parents.

Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna) is one of those “poor kids”, and through mutual torment by the class bully Gonzalo and Pedro become good friends. Before he knows it, Gonzalo is swept into a world where his bicycle, tennis shoes, and condensed milk are unheard-of luxuries. This is a world where people live from day to day hoping not to starve and where Pedro helps his neighbor sell flags at the numerous political demonstrations to support both their families. Suddenly the whole world is turned upside down when a military coup defeats Allende and puts their general, Augusto Pinochet, at the head of the country. What follows is a child’s-eye view of the impact of the first weeks of Pinochet’s rule on the country’s schools and poor citizens.

If you’re looking for a powerful film that focuses on the political changes in Chile during the 70s, this one is definitely it. Events similar to this have happened all over the world and continue to happen in some parts of the world. This film gives us a poignant look at changes that occur far from the centers of power, far from the political jostling, and far from the direct violence of overthrow. Nonetheless, it shows very clearly how many lives were destroyed by such violent changes and how little those who were not affected cared to pay attention.

Considering the main characters in this movie were all children, I was actually surprised at how well I liked the acting. Matias Quer seemed a bit wooden at times, though this may have been due more to the character being far from his comfort zone, even after he’d settled into friendships with lower-class kids. By far the most impressive performance was that of Ariel Mateluna, who played the part of Pedro, or “Peter”, to perfection. This is a character who had to grow up far too quickly and who is constantly battling with the responsibilities and emotions of a grown man while trying to remember to be a kid too.

As is probably obvious given the subject matter, this is not a movie for people who like happy endings. Machuca is based on actual events chronicling the ushering in of a military dictator who ordered and aided in the “disappearance” of countless people in a country that had already been struggling. Director Andres Wood did a superb job of demonstrating all this through the class prejudices, the glimpses of protest marches, and more.

The story moved along well and had a very good script. Being as it was set in Chile, I’m actually surprised at how easy it was to understand the dialog. I’ll be the first to say that my Spanish isn’t the best, but I can generally understand people from all over the world without any problem – except Chile. For those who don’t speak Spanish, the subtitles were quite accurate as far as I could tell. Due to its language and violence, this is not a movie to watch around kids, though neither get too drastically out of hand.

Overall this is an excellent film for those interested in recent Latin American history or as a clear example of the results of violent revolution. History has shown us that, almost invariably, those who have supported the violent overthrow of governments have often been the first to be punished by the new regime, and all of the problems are generally compounded until yet another violent overthrow occurs. This isn’t an easy movie to watch, but certainly worth the watching for an example of political ramifications to the general public.

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